At the age of 5, Kevon Lee, BS, kinesiology, ’21, was shot twice during a drug deal gone bad and spent a month in the hospital recovering from his injuries. He didn’t return to his family home and grew up in the foster care system until he was adopted by his grandmother at age 9. “Through mentorship and the power of education, I was able to find my voice,” he said.
CSUSB’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) Renaissance Scholars Program (RSP) has played a significant role in Lee’s education and his life. On Feb. 1, he used his voice as the alumni scholar speaker at the “Twenty-year Celebration of Scholars and Champions Renaissance Scholars Fundraising Event” hosted by the EOP.
According to Veronica Ramirez Amerson, EOP director, the RSP provides current and former foster youth with comprehensive student support services from point of entry through to graduation and has increased foster youth college attendance rates along with retention and graduation rates.
“The RSP now serves more than 100 foster youth students each semester,” Ramirez Amerson said. “Since its creation in 2003, more than 100 foster youth have graduated with baccalaureate degrees and approximately 50 percent have gone on to pursue graduate degree programs.”
Those numbers are significant. Nationally, only 1 to 5 percent of foster youth who attend college earn their undergraduate degrees. At CSUSB, the RSP has defied those statistics with an overall graduation rate of 54 percent.
The program provides critical support services, including year-round housing assistance and food resources in times of need; assistance with discretionary funds to remove financial barriers to academic progress such as academic supplies, textbooks and transportation costs; co-curricular experiences, including student programming, life skills workshops and mentoring, as well as community building activities that help enrich students’ lived experiences and develop their skillsets.
The goal of the 20th anniversary event is four-fold, Ramirez Amerson said. “We want to first, raise awareness of the experiences of foster youth pursuing higher education and the critical importance of providing comprehensive student support services. Second, we want to celebrate our RSP alumni scholars, and share their journey. Third, we want to celebrate, honor and recognize our community champions,” she said. “And finally, we want to raise funds to sustain the services we provide to foster youth students at CSUSB,” she explained.
One enduring champion of the program is Mark Edwards, a longtime advocate of both CSUSB and the EOP/RSP, who will serve as emcee at the event. In the late 1980s, Edwards himself became the foster parent of a 14-year-old, who he later adopted. Edwards and his wife, Lori, have made a generous revocable planned gift to the program and have also established a scholarship specifically for foster youth.
“Supporting the Renaissance Scholars Program is a way that people can make — more than anything I can think of — a direct change in another person's life,” Edwards said. “So many of the students in the RSP have no family support, and they are completely on their own. To get to this point where they're in college is a major accomplishment. Nothing has a more direct improvement on a life than education,” he said.
RSP alumna Mellisa Casas, BA, liberal studies, ’20, multiple subject teaching credential, ’22, recalls growing up in downtown San Bernardino, “a place you don’t walk after dark.” Both of her parents struggled with substance abuse and her mother was incarcerated when Casas was 7. Her father, who had also been incarcerated off and on, did his best to keep the family of five children together, but Casas was eventually placed in foster care, living in five foster homes throughout her childhood.
When she was 18, she began attending classes at CSUSB’s San Bernardino and Palm Desert campuses. Today, the 26-year-old lives in Indio, teaches third grade and directs the school choir.
“The staff at the Renaissance Scholars Program understood what it was like to be in foster care and they gave me so much support, whether it was gas cards, meals cards for campus, making sure I had wi-fi at home. They gave me a laptop during the pandemic so I could keep up with classes,” she said.
Casas recalled being encouraged by a staff member to attend an RSP holiday party. “That truly left something in my heart that I can’t describe. I never had a Christmas growing up, and this was my first-ever Christmas. On an emotional level, I felt very, very safe with them, and I feel they really healed my inner child,” she said. “Even though I left CSUSB with a degree, I also feel that I left with a family.”
Kevon Lee agrees. After graduating from CSUSB, he earned a master’s degree in higher education leadership and student development from California Baptist University and is now applying to the doctorate in educational leadership program at CSUSB. He is a successful author, motivational speaker and community activist.
“The RSP program is life changing. One of the things we always hear is ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ A lot of foster youth don't have that village. But coming to Cal State San Bernardino, where I think they have the best foster program in the nation, if you want to have that sense of community, it's super important to be there,” he said.
“It’s more than a community. It’s more like a family. They treat you as a family. They treat you with a lot of love. And they love hard.”
Visit the EOP Renaissance Scholars webpage for more information.